Seated figure, Tada, Ife. Copper, early 14th century
Seated figure, Tada, Ife. Copper, early 14th century

A new exhibition at the British Museum in London has brought together African sculptures that changed ideas about art on the continent a century ago.  Sculptures from Ife are on display to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nigerian independence.

From the 12th to the 15th centuries, Ife was a powerful, wealthy and cosmopolitan city-state in West Africa, in what is now Nigeria.

European explorers unearthed Ife's sculptures in 1910, but at first they did not believe they could have been made by Africans.  To them, African art was wild, African depictions were abstract, and African masks were made of wood.

British Museum curator Chris Spring says the discovery changed Western ideas of African art.

"The impact that these had on European perceptions of art with these extraordinarily naturalistic features - totally revolutionized people's ideas of African art, which up until then had been very much the sort of perceptions of avant-guard European artists around the turn of the 19th / 20th century," said Chris Spring.

The sculptures on display appear to highlight every aspect of Ife life.  

Sculpted heads are nearly life-size and each has its own characteristics and expression, full-size figures of plump deities are displayed alongside animals and objects - as well as the young, the old, the sick, and even criminals.

The sculptures are made in bronze, clay, and terra-cotta with a skill, says Spring, that was ahead of its time.

"These people working in glass, in brass, in copper, in terra cotta, were absolutely masters of their trade and again this confounds some people's ideas of Africa - people who have ideas of primitivism and primitive art and so on," he said. "But these were people, at the same time as the great Renaissance drawings of Europe, who were producing art of comparable if not greater quality."

The exhibition celebrates the 50th anniversary of Nigeria's independence.  Curator Julie Hudson says it also highlights just how long and rich is the region's history.

Ife was a major commercial and trading center in West Africa, and Hudson says this is reflected in the art.

"It [the sculpture] tells us that Ife was a very powerful and wealthy city-state in medieval West Africa," said Julie Hudson.

She says Ife has long been seen as the spiritual home of one of Nigeria's largest ethnic groups - the Yoruba.

"Ife is regarded by the Yoruba people today as the creator of mankind, the place where the world was created," she said. "So works from Ife have taken on an iconic status."

Most of the sculptures on display at the London museum are from the collection of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

Today Ife is an urbanized city with around half a million inhabitants - no longer the wealthy and powerful kingdom of old.  But its history, preserved through the detail of its art, has not been lost to the world.